Learning Language through Art

At the Phillips we like to experiment with art as a jumping off point for language learning. Tonight’s Phillips after 5 event will be the latest in the series to include a fast-paced, mini language lesson, this time in American Sign Language inspired by imagery in recent work by Jasper Johns. Later this month, the Phillips and the International Club of DC team up to offer weekly French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Russian meet-ups with expert native speakers in Tryst at the Phillips cafe. In this guest post, Magali Bufferne, French language instructor at the Alliance Francaise de Washington, shares a teacher’s perspective on the benefits of integrating art with language learning.

Photo of Magali's class in front of the Alliance Francaise de Washington.

Magali (second from left) and her students in front of the Alliance Francaise de Washington

I have taught three sessions of French language through art history at the Alliance Francaise de Washington. This class’s main goal is to use a new angle to improve the linguistic abilities of students in French. Instead of a book, the pedagogical support is artwork.

My class is divided into two parts. First I focus on art history, teaching the students about specific artistic movements.  Second, I teach them how to analyze a specific painting or sculpture. During these lessons, students use French in a variety of ways–speaking, reading, listening, and interacting.

This class is unique.  I avoid the classic pattern where the teacher speaks and the students listen. I consider the classroom a place where we can exchange ideas about art. The class’s objective is to give students the confidence to describe a work of art and share their own opinions about it.

The Phillips Collection is a fantastic place to teach this kind of class. The collection focuses on a limited period, which simplifies the choice of artistic movements and paintings to study. Moreover, a large percentage of artists with works in The Phillips Collection are French. Analyzing their art, therefore, is a way to learn about French culture at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

One of the paintings discussed by Magali's class. Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Melancholy, late 1860's. Oil on canvas, 7 1/2 x 9 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1941.

One of the paintings discussed by Magali’s class. Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Melancholy, late 1860′s. Oil on canvas, 7 1/2 x 9 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1941.

During the final session, the class was composed of six people. This small group allowed us to engage in real debate at every class. Each student chose a painting on view and discussed it in the gallery where it hung. Using this method, the students were able to concretely use the language and tools that they had learned during the class.

In addition to modern French paintings, the Phillips  embraces contemporary art. I think it is extremely important to increase students’ awareness about art that asks questions of our society and be able to talk about these works. Language is made to express thought–through learning about the preoccupations of contemporary artists, students can learn to discuss today’s world in French.

Magali Bufferne, French language instructor